Cheap Labour? Or cheap life…

17 May

Alicia Cordoba lives in a house with bare cinderblock walls and a cement floor, divided from a small and very basic shop by a curtain made from an old sheet. The shop provides a precarious living; thick on the ground of Mexico’s urban streetscapes, especially in poor neighbourhoods, they offer snacks, soft drinks, soap, bleach, batteries and other prosaic things people need, items that earn the shop owner a peso here, fifty centavos there. This dark and unlovely shop, like so many others,  is a survival mechanism more than a business.

Alicia and her late husband, Concepcion Garcia, thought they would do better than this eventually, as he signed up to work at a greenhouse in Leamington, Ontario, for $7.25 an hour. Prior to that, Concepcion made about $80 a week in Mexico City, parking and washing cars. But a lot of the young men in Cujinco, the town where they lived with Alicia’s parents, were leaving for jobs in Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and in the year 2000, he went too.

Working 70 hour weeks at Amco Produce, Concepcion was able to bring home enough money to buy a lot and build a basic structure for his wife and their young son. But one day sometime in the summer of 2003, the pesticide machine he was using came apart, spraying him in the face and upper body. Another Mexican working there, Francisco Garcia, says Conception wasn’t allowed to go clean up. He did apparently at some point see a doctor, but by the time he flew back home in October, Alicia’s husband was extremely ill. He had terrible headaches and began to hemorrhage from his left eye. He went several times to clinics in Mexico, but in early February 2004, died. His death, says Alicia, left her “depressed, in debt and really really bad.” Barely scraping by, she has tried to claim some kind of compensation several times but to no avail. Because he was a temporary worker, no one has taken any responsibility for her husband’s workplace accident.

In fact the only people who have tried to help her is the United Food and Agricultural Workers Union, a union to which Concepcion didn’t even have the right to join. They gave her 5000 pesos to sew and embroider cloth bags which they sell, and that money allowed her to open the shop. But the lack of protection for temporary foreign workers in Canada remains. With almost 200,000 of them coming to Canada from all over the world in 2008 alone, one has to wonder how many more Alicias are out there, trying as best as they can to deal with their bad luck, government hand washing and corporate shirking of its legal obligations.


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